By Sergio Tovar

Policymakers increasingly recognize America’s urban-rural divide as a major obstacle for gaining widespread public support for stronger government protections for the climate and the environment. A new analysis by a Duke University faculty-student team found that the way policies are designed, communicated and framed can be key to bridging that divide.

“It’s not just how you talk about environmental policy, it’s about how you design it, taking into account the views of rural stakeholders and what often appears to them as a pattern of top-down, punitive environmental regulation,” says Rubenstein Fellow Robert Bonnie, former Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Under the guidance of Bonnie and PhD candidate Emily Pechar, six Nicholas School students designed and conducted focus groups of rural North Carolinians while also interviewing stakeholder leaders in forestry, agriculture, environment and rural development. The work is intended to better inform officials and organizations on how to frame their work and create more effective environmental policies for rural America.

The project, part of Sanford School of Public Policy’s Democracy Lab course, found that environmental policy and environmentalism don’t always translate well in rural areas. That’s because these communities often feel isolated from decision-making processes and disproportionately affected by these policies.

“There was actually a fair amount of animosity toward environmentalism and the environmental movement,” Pechar says. “Many in our focus groups saw it as too radical to be effective and didn’t consider themselves environmentalists.”

Using terms like conservation, which had a largely positive connotation, instead can help counteract that sentiment. The researchers—which also included Master of Environmental Management students Emma Fulop, Sarah Lanier, Emma Lietz-Bilecky, Shane O’Neal and James Ray as well as Environmental Sciences & Policy major Sarina Weiss—suggest linking environmental effects to health and quality of life, as well as economics and costs to the community, to better relate to rural populations. Giving them more of a voice in crafting regulation, while also pursuing policies that involve rural stakeholders and are created at the state or local levels, also helps.

“You need a lot of buy-in from rural communities to make some of these policies work effectively,” says O’Neal. Policies that provide flexibility, opportunities for local stakeholder input or incentives for voluntary stewardship can prove effective, especially if rural people can see personal benefit in upholding these regulations to improve their ability to make a living off the land.

There was also a strong preference to get information about environmental policies from people who rural communities can relate to and trust—including local research institutions, soil and water conservation agencies, and the Farm Bureaus.

Rural residents’ ties to the land and deep sense of place, which often stems from connection to land passed down through generations, make them likely to want to conserve natural resources as part of a sustainable livelihood.

“It’s easy to talk about how everything is polarized, but if you think about how everyone is motivated by values, I think that makes it more relatable,” says Fulop. “It’s a lot easier to approach someone if you’re not coming at it from ‘here’s what I feel is right and you feel is wrong.’”

Climate change, a hot topic between conservationists and rural communities, didn’t register on the list of top environmental issues in the focus groups.

“For a lot of people, climate change wasn’t a part of their day-to-day thinking,” says O’Neal. “It was something that they were aware of — and many believed in it, some did not — but for most of the people it was just not something they thought much about.”

Because of this, focusing on abstract discussions of climate change, instead of finding ways to relate its effects back to rural communities, appears not to be the most effective way to communicate new policies or conservation efforts. This is important for environmentalists and policymakers to understand as rural America retains significant influence in determining policy at the national level. In particular, the U.S. Senate provides outsized influence to rural states in federal policy.

Finding innovative approaches to this type of political issues is what the project-based Democracy Lab class — led by Professor of Public Policy, Political Science, and Environment Fritz Mayer — aims to do. Last fall, the class also launched projects looking at redistricting and voter registration in North Carolina.

Bonnie thinks students get valuable real-world experience as part of the multidisciplinary course’s collaborative projects.

“It’s a type of experience that I’m not sure a whole lot of students get,” he says.

Bonnie, a 1994 Nicholas School graduate who returned to Duke last year to explore conservation in rural America, hopes to raise funding to conduct broader surveys in communities in North Carolina and beyond to understand the wider implications of the team’s findings. Bonnie is looking forward to collaborating with others at the university, especially the students, who he says bring insightful and refreshing perspectives to his work.

“The students here are really impressive,” he says. “The quality of thinking and the questions they ask force me to open up, which has been really helpful. I’ve learned a lot from them.”

Sergio Tovar is the Nicholas School’s Social Media Specialist.